Future Digital Conundrums

Watching the unveiling of the iPad today spurred me to reflect on some possible problems that may occur in future years of our digital age. For example, movies, books and software that I have purchased do not reside with me physically, but are located in the cloud (on a server somewhere in the ether). Assuming that Apple still exists when I die, can my descendants continue to use my Apple ID and password to access all of the accumulated music, books and software I have purchased? Will the government charge an inheritance tax on all the music I pass down via my Apple account? Can someone keep my Gmail account active so that my lifetime of correspondence can be accessed by a future family historian?

And think of the intense amounts of work that will be required by future historians. We think of the Civil War as the most documented conflict due to thousands of diaries and letters that historians must consult in addition to official accounts and government documents. But can you imagine what a future writer on anything will have to wade through in terms of e-communication to get a complete account of something? Millions of web pages, blog posts, e-mails, documents and videos. It staggers the mind to contemplate it. Perhaps they will simply give up and selectively cull the information to try and stay sane. Or perhaps our records now are less permanent unless they are printed. Take away electricity and all of it vanishes, whereas scrolls and books lasted a few centuries in the past. So maybe the staggering amounts of data generated right now will all be gone. But just think of the future historian trying to write a history of the 2008 Presidential election. How did the people see it? How did the media see it? What did the candidates think? Imagine poring through millions of e-mail with some sort of search algorithm or index. Reading texts from Barrack Obama’s Blackberry, posts from millions of common-man blogs, news articles from sites all over the world and on and on.The task seems daunting.

3 thoughts on “Future Digital Conundrums”

  1. Wasn’t it predicted in 1984, or one of those futuristic books that in the future information would be so profuse that it would become garbage? I think we are there now. I buy real books. BTW.

  2. I’ve thought about the permanence issues, too. I’ve wondered if e-mails will be saved in the way that some people saved their letters, but I think that you’re right to point out that future historians will have the problem of simply too much information. We can feel it now, and we’re fortunate enough to deal with it day by day. It’s hard to imagine dealing with months or years at a time for a research project.

    I suppose that one helpful thing will be that there are probably articles written that have summarized patterns in blog posts, twitter feeds, etc., so future historians may be able to rely on those summaries while dipping into a few specific things.

    1. I’m sure you’re right about summaries, but imagine writing the biography of a future President who is 10 years old today – sifting through his Facebook account, Twitter stream, e-mail, comments on blogs, and whatever else. There will be mountains of information for the eager biographer of the future. We may simply know way too much in the future to deal with.

      On the other hand, these records might vanish somehow, although the Wayback Machine seems to do a good job of archiving the entire net to date.

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